Kingdom Logic and the Ethics of Almsgiving

By Stewart Clem

“He’s just going to spend it on drugs.”
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
“She probably isn’t even homeless.”
“Why can’t they just go to a food bank?”

I imagine all of us have heard these objections when it comes to giving money to beggars. Maybe we’ve uttered them ourselves. It’s an encounter we’ve all experienced: Walking down the street, minding our own business, suddenly we’re confronted with the question, “Can you spare some change?” For those of us who live in large cities, it’s a near-daily encounter. Even in suburban areas and small towns, it’s not unusual to see someone on a street corner with a makeshift cardboard sign that reads “Will Work for Food” or “Homeless Vet. Anything Helps. God Bless.’

I know a lot people who never give money to anyone on the street. These people are not Scrooges. Many of them are quite generous with their personal resources, but they choose to help in other ways. Some people think that we shouldn’t give money to beggars. There are Christians, for example, who misinterpret Jesus’ words, “the poor you will always have with you” (Matt. 26:11) to mean that there is no point in giving money to beggars, because poverty will always exist in the world — at least on this side of the eschaton.

Even if poverty can be eliminated (there is no consensus among economists on this question), it doesn’t follow that giving to street beggars is an effective means of accomplishing that goal. In fact, it’s probably one of the least effective. But does this mean that we shouldn’t do it?

What are we to make of Jesus’ words, “Give to everyone who begs from you” (Luke 6:30)? Jesus says some awfully demanding things in the gospels, and we might wonder how literally we’re supposed to take his commands. Christians have spent the last 2,000 years interpreting Jesus’ words in a more favorable and forgiving light, and one might even say we’ve turned it into a fine art. But figurative interpretation has its limits. I could never be convinced that when Jesus said, “Give to everyone who begs from you,” what he really meant to say was, “You do not need to give to beggars.”

There are several reasons why all Christians should be in the regular habit of giving money to beggars, but here I will only offer two.

The first reason is that it shows respect for the human dignity of those who beg from us. Beggars are not a subspecies of human being. Each beggar we encounter on the street is someone with a mother and a father, with a life story. Beggars are created in the image of God. To see this clearly, we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion of the ‘deserving poor.’ Modern day Christians often romanticize poverty in past ages, telling ourselves that poverty is different today. In our late capitalist society, we assume, people have more freedom and therefore more responsibility for their personal economic situation. Besides, now we have homeless shelters and soup kitchens. We have unemployment benefits and Medicaid. If people are begging on the street and aren’t availing themselves of these resources, then they must just be lazy.

St. John Chrysostom, the great fourth-century preacher, has a word for us: “Need alone is the poor man’s worthiness; if anyone at all ever comes to us with this recommendation, let us not meddle any further.” He goes on, “When you see on earth the man who has encountered the shipwreck of poverty, do not judge him, do not seek an account of his life, but free him from his misfortune.” It is not our job to determine the beggar’s worthiness or to give alms with strings attached. “Charity,” Chrysostom reminds us, “is so called because we give it even to the unworthy.”

Giving money to beggars is an act of solidarity with them. It is a tangible recognition that we are not better than they are, that our wealth is not God’s reward for our wise choices. No matter how financially responsible we think we are, only a fool would believe that the distribution of wealth in our society is in exact measure with each person’s just deserts. Every encounter with a beggar is a reminder that we are fundamentally the same and that with a few different circumstances our roles could have been reversed.

C.S. Lewis’s biographer, Walter Hooper, recalls a time when he and Lewis had such an encounter: “On the way to an Inklings meeting, he gave some money to a street beggar, and I made the usual objection: ‘Won’t he just spend it on drink?’ Lewis answered, ‘Yes, but if I kept it, so would I.’”

The second reason we should give to beggars is that Christians are called to give alms to the poor. This tradition pre-dates Christianity and there are numerous texts throughout the Old Testament that instruct the people of God to share their wealth with those who beg. In fact, the oft cited line, “the poor you will always have with you,” originates in the Old Testament, and it is there offered as a reason for giving to beggars rather than a reason for refraining: “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land” (Deut. 15:11).

When Jesus inaugurates his earthly ministry and proclaims the coming of the Kingdom, he quotes the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). The New Testament repeatedly links refusal to give alms with a rejection of God’s love: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17).

God cares about the plight of the poor, but almsgiving is about more than making the world a better place. Since the earliest days of the Church, Christians have acknowledged the sacramental character of almsgiving. This sacramental character was specifically tied to the personal encounter of giving to a beggar; there is no substitute to be found in civic forms of charity. Gary Anderson, in his excellent book, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition, summarizes the early Church’s outlook as follows: “As God had deigned to condescend to the unimaginable depths of the mortal person, so those who would claim to be God’s people must similarly condescend to the poorest of the poor. It is in the concrete act of assisting a poor person that one meets Christ.” When we give money to beggars in the spirit of charity, it is not merely an opportunity to meet another person’s physical needs; it is an opportunity to meet Christ himself.

There are important practical considerations when it comes to almsgiving, but there are no insurmountable difficulties. While it is unlikely that we will be able to give to everyone who asks for money, we can determine, after prayerful consideration, how much we are able to give each month (or week, etc.) in addition to our usual church and charitable giving. If we exhaust this amount, then at least the next time we are approached we can look the person in the eye and say, “I’m sorry. I wish I could help, but I’ve already given all I can today.” This response acknowledges the humanity of beggars while also forming us in the path of charity, instead of simply ignoring beggars when they approach us, which can only serve to harden our hearts.

Giving money to beggars is neither a self-centered spiritual discipline nor a naive attempt to alleviate poverty. The Bible makes no sharp distinctions between social justice and personal piety. There is nothing contradictory about working for change in society and giving alms as a spiritual discipline — they are complementary practices. That’s because the Kingdom of God is about restoring all things to their right order, which includes justice among humans and towards God, as well as rightly ordered desires within our hearts. Giving to beggars is about seeing Christ in others — the Christ who came to us, poor and lowly. It is a way to remind ourselves that we are all beggars before God, depending entirely on his grace.

Giving to beggars is not an economic solution to poverty, but according to the logic of the gospel, it makes perfect sense.

The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clay is assistant professor of moral theology and director of the Ashley O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership at the Aquinas Institute of Theology, St. Louis.


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